Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

 SA is in danger of becoming caught in a stale, polarised debate between the state and the free market when it should be focusing on how to transform society by emulating the experiences of successful nations.

In 1940, the Scandinavian countries had the same economic conditions as Nigeria. In 1965, on gaining independence from Britain, Singapore was worse off than Zimbabwe was at independence. The tiny island nation was battling opium addiction, widespread poverty and unemployment, and was riven with ethnic cleavages.

A relentless focus on education and meticulous planning enabled Singapore to take its diverse population out of poverty to the frontier of the knowledge economy in a single generation (1965-2000). A lack of natural resources forced the city-state to focus on educating its people — people who were "hard-working, thrifty, eager to learn" in the words of Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first prime minister.

Singapore taught me that you start with the workers you have (not the ones you wished you had) and create the greatest number of jobs for them you can
Helen Zille

Lee governed for three decades (1959-1990) and though his mildly authoritarian government quashed civil liberties in its obsession with achieving economic prosperity, he succeeded in getting everyone to pull together towards this common goal.

"Trying to get agreement on a few core issues is what Trevor Manuel was trying to do with the National Development Plan [NDP]," says Western Cape premier Helen Zille, who recently returned from a study trip to Singapore.

In fact, she feels Singapore’s national plan from 15 years ago is not that different to the NDP. Adopted by government in 2014 but mostly ignored, the NDP is based on the notion that South Africans have to get past party-political differences to grow the economy, and that growth needs to be the yardstick against which all policies are measured.

"The difference was that in Singapore everyone bought into it, pulled together, and with very good monitoring and implementation, the government actually landed the plan throughout society," says Zille.

Zille doesn’t believe that democracy needs to be put aside to pull people out of poverty, nor is she advocating the kind of cultural discipline that prevails in Singapore, but she is applying some aspects of its developmental approach in the Western Cape.

Planning through education is crucial and leadership must unite society behind a plan

"Singapore taught me that you start with the workers you have (not the ones you wished you had) and create the greatest number of jobs for them you can," says Zille. "Then you look five years ahead and start ensuring you are training up the required skills."

The Western Cape government has picked three sectors it believes have the potential to grow fast and draw on the type of labour abundant in the province: agriculture and agro-processing, tourism, and the energy economy. Highly labour-intensive agriculture is great for absorbing large numbers of low-skilled workers and the province is already significantly ahead of its job-creation targets in this area. It is also doing well in meeting its tourism targets. "One of the advantages of tourism is that people can be trained very quickly for jobs in this sector," says Zille.

The province is also making strides in developing its green economy.

For Zille, the buzzword for Singapore’s approach to development is "alignment strategy". It involves detailed planning at the level of each industrial sector to get all the actors in that sector to pull together towards an agreed end-goal.

But it goes further than that. Singapore’s next five-year Future Economy Plan involves looking to the "super-smart" economy of the future, then planning back to primary school for the type of education and skills required.

The plan concludes that in an era of rapid technological change where new technologies (like Uber and Grab) can supplant entire industries, and robotics and artificial intelligence are displacing routine jobs, it is vital that workers constantly upgrade their skills to stay relevant.

The plan doesn’t pretend to be able to predict which industries will succeed. Rather, its starting point is that Singapore must embrace change and innovation, and remain open to trade, talent and ideas while building the deep capabilities required by technological development.

For Singaporeans this means thinking of education as a life-long journey and acquiring transferable skills because they are unlikely to stay in one career their entire lives.

Of special interest to SA is how Singapore became a global leader in technical and vocational education.

At Singapore’s independence, more than 90% of school-leavers followed an academic route to careers. This bias against technical education was not aligned with the country’s initial job-creation-through-industrialisation strategy. It also realised that as it moved from a low-cost, labour-intensive economy to a hi-tech, high-skills economy, the demand for skilled technicians would continue to grow.

To enable its economic development, it set out (through the systematic implementation of rolling five-year plans over 30 to 40 years) to end the stigma against technical education and then to make it the preferred choice for school-leavers.

Today, about 70% of Singaporean school-leavers take the technical route through education. In SA the ratio is roughly 60:40, with 1.1m students at university and 700,000 in technical education.

The sector remains stigmatised in SA — partly because of the legacy of Hendrik Verwoerd, who forced a choice between academic education for whites and vocational education for blacks.

Professor Joy Papier, who heads the Institute for Post-school Studies at the University of the Western Cape, feels that the sector "has come a huge distance" and there are now pockets of excellence and really good practice.

"I don’t think we’ve reached the point where the sector is seen as a real option for young people where they can achieve the equivalent of what they can get from higher education," she says. "But perceptions are changing slowly, helped by the fact that enrolment has doubled over the past 10 to 15 years and that, since 2007, bursaries have been made available by the state."

The key lessons from Singapore’s technical-education success include the need for students to acquire a strong foundation at school; for technical colleges to train for the job market (both the present and the future); to offer excellent campus facilities and teaching; to enjoy generous government support; and to build strong links to business.

Taking a leaf from Singapore’s book, the Western Cape has established the SA Renewable Energy Technology Centre (Saretec), a specialised training school within the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

A first in SA, it even has a high tower so trainee wind-turbine service technicians can get used to working at heights. Their qualification is internationally recognised.

To align all the players in the green economy and to get them to pull together, provincial government established GreenCape, a nonprofit development agency under Mike Mulcahy. It played a key role in bringing Saretec to fruition and has developed a system to allow homes and businesses to feed rooftop solar-generated electricity back into the grid. So far 15 Western Cape municipalities have adopted the system, which has been approved by the national energy regulator.

"We help those departments and organisations that have the right levers and mandates to see how they fit together to form part of the bigger picture," says Mulcahy. "It’s about putting the right people in a room together and providing the energy to push the project over the line."

The city and the province are doing everything possible to reduce red tape and to encourage green industries to invest in
the Atlantis special economic zone on the West Coast, with its abundance of wind and sunshine.

According to Moody’s Investors Service, SA has one of the world’s fastest-growing green economies.

Zille says most of this activity is occurring in the Western Cape thanks to the effort being put behind its development.

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